Try collaborative problem solving

December 21, 2007

—Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD

Last time I gave an introduction to Collaborative Problem Solving, psychologist Ross Greene’s method for teaching non-compliant kids to solve problems better, as described in his book The Explosive Child.  I described the skills deficits of kids, and adults, that keep them from solving problems well.

Plan A, as I described last time, is when the adult gets to say what will happen, without regard for the child’s preferences.  There is always going to be a certain amount of Plan A, but if there is too much, kids don’t get a chance to learn to make decisions.  Plan C is where the child’s will prevails.

Plan B (for both) is where the interesting learning occurs.

Plan B has three steps.  The first is called Invitation.  If a child’s refuses an adult’s request, the adult’s reply is a calm, interested echoing of what the child just said, followed by, “What’s up?”

For example, if a child gets upset when his mother asks him to get ready for bed, mom might say, “You don’t want to go to bed…  What’s up?”  The adult may need to also add some reassurance at this point, saying, for example, “I’m not mad…,” especially if the child is used to the adult insisting on her own way.

The point of the Invitation is to get the child to say what’s on his mind, to give him practice defining and verbalizing what he really needs at this point.  A child who at first has said only, “I don’t want to go to bed!” now has the opportunity to say, during the small, calm, inviting silence left for him, that he wants to watch the rest of his show.

Now that the child’s concern is on the table, the second step is for the adult to get her concern on the table, too.  It’s always done in this order—child first, adult second—to reverse the usual power relationship.

The adult has to be careful, here, to express her concern or reason, not her version of the solution.  For example, the adult’s concern is not, “I want you to go to bed right now,” but rather that the child will be tired in school tomorrow.

By presenting the concern that lies behind her request, the adult models for the child that she’s able to think and deal calmly with the conflict, that she has good reasons, and that what she requests is in the child’s interest.  She also models that she respects and values the child, and that she expects the child to be able to come up with a good solution.

The third step is for the adult to invite the child to solve the problem.  Solutions in Plan B need only to be feasible and acceptable to both parties.  They don’t have to meet some outside standard.  As in the presentation of concerns, the child gets the first crack at it.  Perhaps he will propose that he get ready for bed during the advertisements, and be ready to get right in bed at the end of the show.

If the child has proposed the solution, chances are he’ll do it willingly and enthusiastically.

If the child’s solution is not acceptable to the adult, the adult now gets to propose modifications.  For example, if she thinks this is still too late, she might suggest that the child do this only on the weekend, or that they will follow the child’s plan once, but make a new, long-term plan tomorrow.

In the heat of the moment, when a problem is actually taking place, it’s harder to get a good solution.  This is the difference between Emergency Plan B, which includes the above example, and Proactive Plan B.

Proactive Plan B takes place away from the time and place of a chronic source of conflict.  Proactive Plan B might begin with the adult saying at some other time, “I’ve noticed that you never like to get ready for bed when I ask you… What’s up?”  If done hours before bedtime comes up again, and away from the immediate frustration of having a TV show interrupted or a child refusing to go to bed, there’s a wider range of solutions available, and everyone is more able to think coolly.

Don’t think it will all go smoothly!  The point of using Plan B is to impose a usable structure on a situation with which a child or adult chronically has trouble.

The chronic trouble is the skills deficit—the black-and-white thinking, impulsivity, difficulty with self-expression, etc.—that led to the chronic problem with cooperation and compliance in the first place.  The skills deficits will show up over and over during the attempts to solve problems.  The purpose of the method is to work through the skills deficits by modeling and practice.

Good luck!